Can your boss force you back into the workplace?

Published: 11/05/2022
Category: Workers rights
Published: 11/05/2022
Category: Workers rights

If you haven’t had the conversation already, it could be coming soon. Whether you welcome the request or not, your employer may ask for you to return to the physical workplace.  

But what if you don’t what to go back? Legally speaking, this is a tricky one.

Your health should always take priority

Employers do have a general right to direct how and where you perform your work – but there are exceptions to the rule. A key one is that an employer can’t make you do anything that puts you in harm’s way. 

The pandemic has shown the importance of having a workplace that respects the health and safety of its workers. Case numbers shows us that we still need to treat COVID-19 seriously, including at work. 

Before making any decision that could affect the health and safety of workers, employers must consult with their employees, as required under work health and safety legislation. 

That’s why, if your employer wants you to return to the office, it is important to consider: What COVID-safety measures are in place?  What are the risks to health and safety and how are they being managed?  Has the employer consulted with the workforce, including the health and safety representatives? 

If you aren’t comfortable with the answers to those questions, you should chat to your health and safety representative or union. 

Your boss just might not get it

But why are some employers insistent on their employees coming back after working from home for the past two years? Believe it or not, but they’re probably not trying to be cruel.  

One reason is that they might not understand where their workers are coming from when they say they want to continue working from home. 

For some of us, the change to working from home has meant cutting out extra expenses from our daily work lives. And with skyrocketing cost-of-living to consider, it’s understandable why many workers are reluctant to pay for transport, lunch and other costs just to sit at a CBD desk. 

A major factor of difference between the average worker and bosses are the levels in salary which determine where you can afford to live.  

For the worker on $70,000 a year (a bit more than the average wage) there is only one Sydney postcode where rental prices are ‘acceptable’. In Perth and Melbourne there are only a few affordable postcodes for renters on an average income. 

The closest affordable suburb in Brisbane to the CBD is still more than a half an hour drive away and there is not a single suburb in Canberra that is deemed any better than ‘unaffordable’ for the average worker.  

And that’s just the rental situation – recent data modelling shows that it takes a double average income saving for more than a decade to purchase a house.  

So, unless you’re pulling in the big bucks, it’s likely you’re living somewhere requiring a long and costly commute to work – whether that’s via car or public transport.  

For workers that live outside metropolitan areas, it can sometimes cost more than $100 a week just to commute to and from a CBD office.  

And for employers living closing to work and on a higher pay bracket, these costs may have not crossed their mind. It’s a lot easier to ask workers back to the office if you’re assuming they’re also just a short trip away. 

Joining your union puts you on the front foot

But this is when being a union member really pays off. If you haven’t already, chat to your union delegate and together with your colleagues, you can bring your concerns to your employer’s attention. 

It’s highly likely that you won’t be the only one feeling reluctant to enter a physical workplace. When a boss can see how widespread certain concerns and issues are, it means they can more make decisions that benefit everyone.  

The more enjoyable workplaces are the ones where everyone is on the same page. If one day you’re a manager in a company or even running your own business, you’ll know how to build a unionised workforce with a thriving and happy work environment.  

As union members, our actions are never for the advancement of the individual alone. That’s why we act to make changes that benefit everyone. You. Your coworkers. Your family. Their coworkers.  

Union members are building fairer and safer workplaces for today – and tomorrow. 

You’re never alone when you’re a union member

Can your boss force you back into the workplace?

Can your boss force you back into the workplace?